Overcoming the challenges of online dialogue groups

Caux Dialogue on Environment and Security 2020

Karina Cheah

By Karina Cheah


I have never been to Caux. I had also never moderated a dialogue group before, in or outside of the Caux Forum. As I faced the prospect of co-facilitating an online dialogue group in the Caux Dialogue on Enviroment and Security (CDES), I asked myself how, without the experience of being in Caux, I could even begin to recreate the beautiful safe space that so many have experienced in Caux Forum dialogue groups – and in an online format.

Dialogue groups, where participants convene to discuss the day’s events or share their stories, are an integral part of the Caux Dialogue on Environment and Security (CDES). The smaller number, moderated by a member of the organizing team, allows for a more intimate space for sharing. As I was on the organizing team and am quite new to the Caux Forum, I was asked to co-facilitate a dialogue group. This gave me a chance to take part in the conference as well as help put it together.

I was lucky to have the support of Benjamin Callison as my co-facilitator. He has moderated several dialogue groups at Caux. Watching him establish the Zoom room as a safe space, guide the conversation, and encourage our participants to open up and share their stories and concerns was an invaluable learning experience. He opened our first session by asking each of us ‘Who are you?’ instead of ‘What do you do?’. This removed the surface-level awkwardness and allowed us immediately to know one another as people with interests rather than as professional titles.

The dialogue groups met for an hour each day between 1 to 4 July. Ben moderated the first two days and turned the session over to me for the third. I felt much more prepared to step up to the plate simply from having absorbed what I had seen him do. Moderating did not turn out to be as frightening as I thought it would be – and, for someone who is not a fan of public speaking, even in a small setting, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed it. We managed to achieve a level of unfiltered, honest conversation, providing space for different stories and opinions, similar to what I imagine we would have in person. Our dialogue group hailed from five countries. We shared the struggles of our regions, such as what to do about the palm oil industry in Indonesia or the continued environmental skepticism of many in the United States. Deeply personal stories brought us closer together.

There are still plenty of differences between convening in person and online. There’s an organic element to talking in person that is lost online. It's much harder to interject, so the dialogue becomes somewhat panel-like as people cycle through, sharing their thoughts for a few minutes. Connectivity can be a disadvantage – people can drop out of meetings unexpectedly, and there’s always issues of volume and of video freezing, all of which occurred during our meetings.

Even so, our online dialogue group was able to form strong connections, so much so that we still keep in touch via a WhatsApp group. I will take forward practical lessons about moderating conversations and action points on how to help our environment, five good friends and a strong feeling of connection to the spirit of Caux. The technology that kept us apart is also what ultimately brought us together, and I am deeply grateful for that.

You would like to know more about the Caux Dialogue on Environment and Security? Click here.


Karina Cheah

Karina Cheah is a rising senior at Colgate University (Hamilton, NY, USA) and is currently working for Initiatives of Change Switzerland as an intern for communications and the Caux Dialogue on Environment and Security. She is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations with a double minor in French and Creative Writing and plans to continue with all three fields in her postgraduate education. Her academic areas of interest include the intersection between foreign and domestic policy and the politics of Southeast Asia. In addition to her work with Initiatives of Change Switzerland, she is finalizing a short story collection entitled This Side of the Veil, available for purchase in July 2020.



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